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The Southern Spirit of Innovation

The South's participation in the "innovation economy" includes initiatives to build R&D and boost prosperity in the region's high-tech industries.

Southern Tech Sites 2007
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The promises of biotechnology need little repetition here. Like regions around the world, the South is aiming to build upon biotech successes to create an atmosphere for more advances. The Southern Biotechnology Initiative is one such effort, bringing together such partners as Southeast BIO and BioSouth (formerly the Southern U.S. International BioAlliance).

For now, the initiative is divided into two key parts. First is the development of an asset map detailing where in the South there are concentrations of biotechnology research, infrastructure, and funding. Such a map will make it clear where the strongest bioclusters can be found. The initiative's second major mission is to take that information and present it in a cohesive way when the biotech world gathers in Atlanta for the BIO 2009 conference.

It won't be a difficult case to make. Already, the region has plenty of strengths when it comes to biotechnology. For example, Ernst & Young's "Beyond Borders: The Global Biotechnology Report 2006" names North Carolina as America's third-most-active biotech cluster, behind only California and Massachusetts. Playing a large role in that ranking is the presence of the state's Research Triangle Park - which includes three world-class universities and is home to 88 biotech companies and 100 biotech-related firms.

Georgia, Texas, and Florida also rank in the top 10. And biotech clusters can be found in such places as Austin, Gainesville, Atlanta, Nashville, Birmingham, and Charleston, to name just a few. The presence of strong research universities is a key, and beyond that, life-sciences incubators dot the Southern map.

More life science advances are promoted by BioSouth - a Georgia-based organization dedicated to the advancement of Southern bioscience companies and institutions. The organization sponsors regular conferences and programs that support technology commercialization and other partnerships.

Part of the effort to boost biosciences involves growing research capabilities. For example, Missouri's Center for Emerging Technologies provides services and facilities designed to accelerate the growth of biomedical and other advanced technology companies.

Another part is leveraging the region's existing strengths. Consider the case of the Memphis area. Thanks in large part to the presence of FedEx, Memphis could be considered the capital of logistics. Now, the Memphis Bioworks Foundation is working to make it the capital of "biologistics," serving the needs of pharmaceutical companies and scientists who need to quickly manufacture, pack, and ship medications and other medical supplies.

There are plenty of other examples of biotech activities that are not just research-focused. In North Carolina, for example, the state's community college biotechnology initiative, called NCCCS BioNetwork, is said to be the leading network of specialized education and training for biotechnology-related business. Its six BioNetwork centers offer specialized training and employ staff recruited directly from industry.

These days there may be no scientific topic any hotter than energy. With prices for gasoline and other forms of energy going through the roof, there's unprecedented interest in finding new efficiencies and alternative energy sources. That's what the Southern Energy Initiative is all about.

Providing some direction to the initiative is the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. The organization and the Southern Growth Policies Board pulled together the first bioenergy retreat last fall, assembling about 80 bioenergy leaders from across the South to discuss how to further develop their sector. The group determined to create a regional bioenergy organization, an R&D network, and a bioenergy commercialization committee.

Earlier this year, the Southern Growth Policies Board and the Southeast Agriculture and Forestry Energy Alliance Steering Committee announced the creation of a new Southeast Agriculture & Forestry Energy Alliance. The group unites organizations and individuals from the agricultural, forestry, conservation, and environmental communities along with researchers, industry representatives, and others with an interest in renewable energy. The result is to be a network that will collect and share critical information for the commercialization of renewable-energy technologies.

Plenty of energy-related innovations are already in the works in the South. At Georgia Tech, for example, the Strategic Energy Initiative approaches energy research from a number of angles. Research into alternative sources includes a focus on ways to efficiently and cost-effectively create ethanol from Southern pine trees, which will reduce carbon dioxide emissions and sustain the South's forest-products industry. The initiative is also exploring ways to increase energy efficiency by improving combustion processes and lighting efficiencies, among other measures.

Construction has also begun on the first bio-diesel plant in a 16-county area of East Tennessee known as the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley. Northington Energy's $3 million facility near Wartburg in Morgan County will convert soybeans into fuel. Company officials have announced they will use the facility to work with Volkswagen and Suzuki on an engine testing program involving highly refined bio-fuels for auto racing.

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